Was Iraq 'Worth It'?

Ernesto Londono, Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post, looked to the city of Samarra to answer the question: Was the Iraq war worth it? Samarra appears to be a surge success story, but it remains deeply divided along Sunni and Shia lines.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The City of Samarra was a flashpoint for some of the worst fighting in Iraq. The bombing of the golden dome there in 2006 triggered a vicious civil war. Today, some tout Samarra as a surge success story, and the city is, once again, a destination for religious tourists. Security has improved so much that thousands of Shiite pilgrims visit every week. Others, though, argue that Samarra remains deeply divided. As US troops withdraw from Iraq, they leave behind a trail of imperfect successes, like Samarra. In the Washington Post, Correspondent Ernesto Londono listened as the departing soldiers and the citys citizens discussed: Was the war worth it?

We'd especially like to hear from those of our listeners who've been to Iraq. Was it worth it? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ernesto Londono of the Washington Post joins us now from our bureau in Baghdad. Good of you to be with us this evening.

Mr. ERNESTO LONDONO (Baghdad Bureau Chief, The Washington Post): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And can you describe Samarra for us? Is it a shattered city?

Mr. LONDONO: Well, you can still see the signs of the fighting. You can see -still see the bullets lodged in the walls. And you can still see houses that have collapsed. But it's come a very long way. It's no longer a problem to just walk around the city. It doesn't seem like a tense city anymore. And it's a pretty heavily secured city. There's a lot of army, there's a lot of police. So if you want to take a look at Samarra now and compare it with what the city became at the height of the fighting back when insurgents essentially large portions of the town, you can argue that it's a success story. However, when you look behind the surface a little bit, you can still see that there's quite a lot of animosity and there's quite a lot of skepticism among citizens about what's going to happen in this town after the Americans leave. The Americans have been buffers in Samarra, as well as other cities in Iraq where there's been sectarian tension, and those buffers are growing very thin.

CONAN: Is the city completely divided between Shias and Sunnis?

Mr. LONDONO: No. The city is predominantly Sunni and has always been predominantly Sunni. The phenomenon you have there, which is pretty interesting, is this mosque, which has been a magnet for tourists and is one of the most important mosques in Shia Islam, has now been surrounded by walls. So it's essentially been, you know, the economic heart of the city has been cut out from the city for all practical purposes. And it is a Shia foundation out of Baghdad that runs this place. And the residents and the city leaders who are Sunni don't get to reap any of the benefits.

CONAN: But do they accept that if those walls were taken down, it might not be safe for those Shia pilgrims?

Ms. LONDONO: Well, actually, they make the argument that theyre ready to take responsibility for the mosque and for the city, and that this shouldn't be a little enclave controlled buy the Shias out of Baghdad, that they want their entire city back and they would like to be in control of their city, and that things have changed enough that they would be equipped to do that. If you talk to the people in Baghdad, they don't want to take any chances. The bombing of this mosque - the Al-Askari Mosque, back in February of '07 - had such devastating ripple effects. It is essentially seen as the starting point of the sectarian war in the country. And the mosque was subsequently bombed a few months later a couple of times.

So if you really wanted to take a stab at rekindling the sectarian war, this would be a prime target. And people in Baghdad, I dont think, are going to take any chances on this. And they dont want to lose control or authority over it.

CONAN: In your piece at the Washington Post on Sunday, you asked a question: if a somewhat peaceful albeit deeply divided country is the best conceivable outcome after more than six years of war, thousands of American dead and billions of dollars spent, was it worth it?

Mr. LONDONO: Thats right. I think that the question that were going to be talking about for years, if not decades to come. Certainly the reasons that America launched a war in Iraq are not things we talk about these days. We dont talk about weapons of mass destruction.

But when you look at these tactical units, when you look at these infantrymen, these soldiers who have been here for numerous deployments and have seen this war through several incarnations, I think those that are leaving now, who got to see this country back in 2006 and 2007 when things were pretty hopeless, when it just didnt look as though there was going to be any exit strategy that was going to allow these soldiers to leave with any dignity; whats remarkable is that at this point in certain places of the country although things were tenuous, and people are edgy, and theres a lot of fear on the air - these soldiers can live behind places that look a lot better and are working a lot better than they did their last deployment. Due to the way that deployment cycles work, a lot of the people who are here now got to see this country when it was literally on the edge of collapsing entirely, where it was really, you know, anarchy.

CONAN: Lets see if we could get some listeners in on the conversation. Our guest is Ernesto Londono, Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief, with us from our bureau in Baghdad.

800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We hope to hear from some people who served in Iraq. Ernesto, but you also talked with a lot of the people there in Samarra, do they think it was worth it?

Mr. LONDONO: It depends who you ask. I would say the majority of people the majority of Iraqis that I speak to have told me that they dont think it was worth it. That they dont think that the amount of death and destruction and violence the invasion unleashed was necessarily worth it for them, personally, based on the amount of relatives they loved - they lost, the amount of opportunities they lost, the amount of time they lost. You look around the country, from, you know, south to north, east to west, and so many lives and so many families have been broken here, and are just, at this point, trying to put the pieces back together, that you really dont you dont really get an enormous amount of gratitude for, what the United States is leaving behind. You do have some people who who were so unhappy with Saddam Husseins regime, and for whom life has sort of, you know, albeit after years of a war and tragedy and loss their lives just have turned around.

And they have gone from being have-nots to haves. And I think some of those people have have, sort of, a more nuanced vision of what the American legacy is here and what kind of country that leaving behind. So you certainly do have people who have a more optimistic outlook.

CONAN: Lets get the caller in. This is Jason(ph). Jason, with us from San Marcos in Texas.

JASON (Caller): Yes. I would argue that it has been worth it, if for no other reasons then we have not have another major terrorism incident inside the United States. By going to Iraq, if nothing else, we gave them a place to come and fight us the way they want to fight us outside of the U.S.

CONAN: So though Iraq itself had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, it provided a battleground for the Mujahideen to hit the United States and for us to hit back?

JASON: Admittedly, based off of the intelligence that I saw before the war, yes, we did have reasons to go into Iraq, but we havent

CONAN: Did they have to do with 9/11?

JASON: I really cant talk about that.

CONAN: I see no evidence, whatsoever, that anybody in Iraq had anything to do 9/11.

JASON: If nothing else, the Saddam Hussein regime supported those who did it, and anyone wants to kill Americans, you know, I have limited sympathy for

CONAN: I can go with that last point with you there, but theres absolutely no evidence in the public record, or Ive seen anybody site or off the record, saying theres stuff but I just cant tell you, that connects Iraq, in any way, to al-Qaida and to 9/11, or to suggest that any way they were in any alliance, whatsoever, together. So - but I can understand your other point. Thanks very much for the call, Jason.

JASON: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Lets see if we can go next to this is Ezra(ph). Ezra, with us from Casper, Wyoming.

EZRA (Caller): Yes. I my comment is that I dont think it was worth it to go to Iraq. Its been six years with very little, if any, progress and Id like to make a comment about the reason we dont talk about why we originally went over the there, and I think it has a lot to do with the American public being lied to. We didnt want to concentrate on that. Their weapons of mass destruction where as imaginary as underpants gnomes.

CONAN: Well, again, just as Ive questioned the last caller, I think there were people who were mistaken, but I dont think they were, you know, they believed in honest belief that they were chemical weapons and maybe biological weapons. Theres a lot of questions about the nuclear weapons and the connections to 9 /11, but chemical weapons people sincerely believed that. Im not sure that that was lying as (unintelligible) much as being wrong.

Mr. LONDONO: Well, I guess, maybe that would be true, but I have a hard time believing that we didnt have a better idea before going in that there wasnt anything there. It seems to me that it was to finish up something that wasnt done years before.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Ezra.

EZRA: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate that. As you talked to the soldiers - the American soldiers -pulling out of Samarra, there was this sort of tactical question, Ernesto Londono, that you asked them about, well, are we leaving this a better place than you found it -*/*8623. in other words, two or three years ago. But, nevertheless, there are broader questions that some of the soldiers seem to address. You spoke with the one who described himself as a lost man.

Mr. LONDONO: Thats right. That was actually a pretty compelling conversation. I found three soldiers, while I was there in Samarra on my embed, who were emptying out sandbags. And the reason they were doing that is they were being punished for different things and they were assigned to sandbag duty.

And, generally, soldiers will not really criticize the mission. Its pretty rare for soldiers at that level - at the specialist and sergeant levels - for somebody to speak to a reporter using their name and essentially say that their views run contrary to what the mission is. And this guy was very frank. He said, Ive been here five years and I think this place is hopeless.

I think were caught here between a war that has been, at different levels, raging for centuries. And its much bigger than us. And right now, were sort of caught between these feuding sides and were acting as security guards in sort of keeping them from killing each other and keeping them talking to each other. But thats all going to stop when we leave.

The flip view of that is, the Americans, right now, are still widely seen as a key buffer in Iraq. In the north, theyre key buffer between Kurds and Arabs that are fighting over land; among Sunnis and Shiites, I think they still do a great amount of work behind closed doors to keep people talking to each other and to keep lines of dialogue open and to keep people from fighting political fights out on the street.

So, I think there are Americans, and certainly senior American commanders here who believe that they want to stay a little longer and hope that they can help these wounds heal more before they leave.

CONAN: Were talking with Ernesto Londono, Washington Post bureau - Baghdad bureau chief. Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And lets see if we can go next to Matt(ph). Matt with us from Parker in Colorado.

MATT (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I was in Iraq with the Marines in 2003 and 2004. And before we went in, I thought, yes, this is a good thing. But, in retrospect, that really I dont think that we should have been there at all, and that we really - that any real good has come out of it from what I saw and from whats still going on there now.

CONAN: And theres no and thats not view thats (unintelligible) by any positives, Matt?

MATT: Well, when I first got there in 2003, I was I went in with - when it all started in Southern Iraq, around Nasiriyah, thats people there were really happy to see us at first. And then, of course, later on that became a bad area. But then, in 2004, when I went back I was in Fallujah, and of course they were all Sunnis there, and they hated us.

They did not want us there at all. We couldnt even drive by the city without getting shot at. So I saw some positives in the beginning but it really it didnt last very long.

CONAN: What do you make of reports that some of those same people who were shooting at you in Fallujah later joined forces with the Americans to force the defeat of al-Qaida in Iraq?

MATT: Well, I dont know. Its - I supposed anybody can switch sides, right?

CONAN: Yeah.

MATT: But that doesnt really take back all the

CONAN: Oh no.

MATT: soldiers that were killed before that and all the civilians that died because of it, so

CONAN: And Ernesto Londono thank you very much for the call, Matt. Appreciate it.

MATT: Yeah, thank you.

CONAN: And Ernesto, there is some echoes of that still in Samarra too.

Mr. LONDONO: Oh, absolutely. I spoke to a couple of the key leaders of what was then called the resistance. Before we started talking about the insurgency in Iraq, you had essentially, sort of these home-grown groups that took up arms against the Americans.

And whats really striking is in - when you go to Sunni cities like Samarra, like Fallujah, like Ramadi, where the I mean, hundreds of Americans were killed by some of these resistance groups that later became insurgents. They ultimately became very close friends. And its striking to sit in the room these days at in these cities with an American commander and somebody who openly talks about his insurgent days and his days killing Americans.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LONDONO: And it is as though everybody has been able to move on, at least to the degree where they can talk about it and understand that they can work together.

CONAN: And, obviously, the, I guess, the final conclusion is not going to be written until an Iraq emerges after the United States does finish its military withdrawal and we see what happens in places like Samarra.

Mr. LONDONO: Absolutely. I think if you see troops move out of key areas, you start seeing hints of what kind of country this is going to become and you start seeing hints of what kind of conflicts arise and what kind of power structure emerges. But I dont think were going to get a sharp picture for years. I think the American legacy here has very deep roots, and its going to have ripple effects for years to come, and we dont know how the story ends.

CONAN: Ernesto Londono reports on Iraq for The Washington Post, joined us today from our bureau in Baghdad. Thanks very much for your time.

Mr. LONDONO: Thank you.

CONAN: Tomorrow, Rebecca Roberts will be here as guest host, and well be looking at where the jobs are in the future if there are any. Call us then. Im Neal Conan. Its the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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